Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Old Ways

Human technology, like organisms themselves, evolved gradually along with human populations to solve problems posed by different environments. Successful technologies solved problems relating to nutrition, group cohesion, securing territory, and surviving the elements, among many others. 

It is unlikely that the humans who used and gradually changed technologies throughout the ages were aware of all of the functions of their cultural package - any more than we are aware of all of the functions of our cultural package today. A cultural package would reproduce itself by working well enough to be passed down to another generation of humans. Conservatism among simple societies prevented dangerous innovations from destroying the carefully evolved cultural package, but rare successful innovations would occasionally become part of the cultural package. 

Over the past several thousand years, civilization has independently occurred many times. The complexities of civilization have repeatedly added a snowballing load of cultural innovations to human groups, usually resulting in a population explosion and subsequent crash. We are currently likely near a population peak resulting from the greatest innovation snowball the world has ever known. 

The cultural packages that were stable at past times did not evolve to maximize human happiness, but rather, like organisms, to maximize their own reproductive capabilities. A small band of happy foragers could expect to be overwhelmed by a cranky but fecund settlement of farmers; hence, in this example, the farmer cultural package would be reproduced more successfully than the forager package. That said, humans themselves evolved in the presence of past successful stable cultural packages (just as we evolved in the presence of prey species and parasites). Cultural packages that were stable for centuries appear to have done a decent job of providing humans with a sense of meaning and a decent level of wellbeing. 

Should we go back to the old ways? This is both impossible and undesirable. The further back in time we go, the lower the population density norms evolved to support. It is unlikely that the world's present population could be supported in foraging tribes or even simple farming societies. Not only that, but the evolved cultural packages have largely been interrupted; even if we wanted to instantiate them, we would have a hard time finding out exactly what they were. 

Given the search function that past humans used to "find" their cultural packages, it is likely that the cultural packages are local maxima for cultural reproductive success. They are hard-won solutions to complex problems, worked out in the computer of time and human lives; but they are not absolute maxima of anything, and they are not necessarily even local maxima of human wellbeing. Even if we were to go back in time to a pre-civilized society, it is not clear that maintaining existing traditions would be the best way to maximize human wellbeing. It is likely that there are many dimensions along which we could increase human wellbeing at the expense of environment-specific cultural reproduceability. 

Fast forward, however, to the present day, in which existing cultures have moved very far away from evolved cultural packages. In what direction have they moved away, and how has this affected human wellbeing? 

There are two major directions in which cultural packages have changed: toward those norms and institutions that support greater population density (agriculture, Green Revolution, cities), and toward short-term individual preference as dictated by market economies. 

Rich industrialized countries are particularly high in serving short-term individual preference. While these countries have experienced a major reduction in violence over hundreds of years, they also experience new, widespread problems that undermine the very desirability of human life itself. Suicide, for instance, is more prevalent in industrialized countries than homicide. Obesity and depression have both reached epidemic proportions unheard of before the present century. More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago. 

The old ways (evolved cultural patterns) probably did a decent job of meeting the needs of ancestral populations. These old ways would not meet our needs today. But moving away from ancestral norms based on individual short-term preference is not turning out to be a good way to meet our needs. The invisible hand, it seems, is strangling us. 

We have indulged our short-term preferences at the expense of healthy bodies, meaningful lives, and stable relationships. This is not an indictment of human willpower: we simply did not evolve the capabilities to resist the temptations provided by modern life. 

The old ways are not the answer. Moment-to-moment individual preference is not the answer. Is there an answer?

43 comments:

  1. A paradigm shift is needed. I think we should start by getting rid of all the clocks.

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    1. I like the poetry of this answer. Thank you.

      We have gotten a lot of devices without much tradition of successful use of the devices ('cause they're new). Novelties are dangerous without norms - norms are the "common sense" we're missing for environmental novelties, because common sense has not had time to evolve.

      I don't think complete abstinence from post-1900 technology would be fun for more than a few days at a time, but DAMN getting rid of the clocks has some power to it. Because it would mean getting rid of industrial time, which is an extreme hardship.

      I wonder if anything like our present food production system could function without clocks?

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    2. it is interesting to think about how essential clocks are to the organization of all human activities.

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    3. I would love to know how much time I have personally spent sitting in job jail waiting for a set number of minutes to pass before I can go home. I bet the majority of my life has been spent that way, just feeling trapped and miserable and wanting to move forward, but not being able to because the clock says I have to stay put awhile longer.

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  2. Is there an answer?
    Extinction?

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  3. Somewhat agree w/ Sri. Global level event. Asteroid, aliens, quake, flood. Thin the herd; increase cohesiveness.

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    1. Of course this is my knee-jerk answer, too. No people is ideal, fewer people would at least increase their value to each other and decrease pressure on resources, giving cohesiveness a chance. Or would violence like in the previous centuries descend on us again? Would that be a better life for the few who are left, after a few generations? Would they still be able to make antibiotics?

      But let's say short term. We're all alive now. Lots of our friends and relatives have kids (some of us, even). What should they do about this amazing mismatch between human beings, their environment, and the glittering shreds of the present cultural package?

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  4. I don't what the answer is, but here is maybe a small ray of hope. Determinism underlies both biological evolution and cultural evolution, but the latter affords more opportunities for human agency to interfere with it. Why? Because it evolves within historical time-frames rather than geological ones. I'm thinking of something that Marvin Harris, the anthropologist, pointed out. Edison could pass on the innovation of the lighbulb to whole world within a couple of generations. Meanwhile, his heritable intelligence has been passed on to just a few individuals.

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    1. I like this. Norms and technologies can evolve a hell of a lot faster than genes - which is how we managed to inhabit every miserable island of the world. Even so, the time scale involved is longer than a human lifetime.

      We probably want to make faster changes than that. (Like Edison.) But given how complex the design problem is, how do you even approach it?

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  5. I'm reminded of Houellebecq's response to an interviewer who asked him whether he was 'right-wing':

    "What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes. It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do. That’s the difference between me and a reactionary. I don’t have any interest in turning back the clock because I don’t believe it can be done. You can only observe and describe. I’ve always liked Balzac’s very insulting statement that the only purpose of the novel is to show the disasters produced by the changing of values. He’s exaggerating in an amusing way. But that’s what I do: I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values."

    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6040/the-art-of-fiction-no-206-michel-houellebecq

    He's right: the only thing we can do is observe and describe -- and wait for the end.

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    1. Making stories is doing something. Abstraction is doing something. I haven't figured out whether those are on balance good for us, but they're irresistible drugs.

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    2. making stories is funnest way to spend your time.

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  6. Birth control in the drinking water.

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  7. Suicide, for instance, is more prevalent in industrialized countries than homicide. Obesity and depression have both reached epidemic proportions unheard of before the present century. More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago.

    I'm a deep pessimist (in the sense that I believe life is ultimately pointless and cruel), but I'm not convinced that things are worse on measure than they were in the past, nor am I persuaded that the apparent evolutionary mismatch you identify portends especially dire consequences (except perhaps in the strict sense that more people means more suffering in toto, but I don't think that's what you're driving at here) for present and future generations.

    If suicide is more prevalent than homicide in industrialized countries, it is worth considering whether and how this could reflect the overall decline in violence that correlates with industrialization and emergent affluence. I think we should also consider the extent to which this might follow from greater autonomy that individuals enjoy in a cultural environment that is, by definition, more conducive to productive risk and mobility. It might also be, at least in part, an artifact. Does suicide increase as a population ages?

    Obesity is a problem stemming from abundance and relative comfort, even among the poor. We might -- or might not -- agree that it signals an unfortunate turn, if not a crisis, but the evo/cultural mismatch seems like just the sort of thing that can be sorted out over a few generations, perhaps with the aid of pharmaceutical innovations. Besides, food is a source of real gratification for real people who only live once, and I don't think the actuarial effects of an overweight population are obviously worse than the immanent threats faced by those who lived -- or who yet live -- in a more hardscrabble environment.

    Depression. Who was even curious about this in the past? Now that we have a word for what we already knew in some inchoate sense, is it worse? I don't know that we know. And what about the upper end of well-being? Do we even log stats on comparative rates of exquisite happiness?

    Are we confident that life in modern slums -- maybe think of Dharavi -- is worse, or less hopeless, than pastoral life, when you couldn't sneak into the movies or steal a fresh batch of nan, or dream of one day landing on a different shore? Maybe it is. I'm not convinced.

    Look, I know that it's bad. That's how the show is rigged. I'm just not sure it's objectively worse, nor am I sure that our present predicament is characterized by special -- or (relatively) unremediable -- declension. People live and die as they always have, and they look for distractions as they always have. Of course, we have more distractions now, and so maybe we're more confused. That it's bad enough still doesn't mean we've steered ourselves into an evolutionary cul-de-sac. And it doesn't mean that it isn't getting better.

    To the extent that I agree with your premise, I think the answer is drugs. Better drugs. Chemistry. Or the asteroid thing.

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    1. I agree, Chip. Good comment.

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    2. "Depression. Who was even curious about this in the past? Now that we have a word for what we already knew in some inchoate sense, is it worse? I don't know that we know. And what about the upper end of well-being? Do we even log stats on comparative rates of exquisite happiness?"

      Stimulating perspective, Chip.

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  8. Better drugs, and let's clone George R.R. Martin!

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    1. You may be surprised, but drugs may not feel they way you expect/hope when you actually try them. I attempted several drugs as of lately. The chemical "happiness" felt fake and mixed with reality like water and oil. I'm disappointed.

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  9. Seriously though, lately I've been thinking a lot about an effect of exploding population growth that has nothing to do with logistics, feeding them all, traditional values vs modern... I'm thinking (to put "becoming slowly more and more horrified" nicely) about how important the illusion of meaning is to people's happiness, and how much less each one of us means in the grand scheme of things every time another million babies are born. Yes, we've always been sitting on one of an infinite number of insignificant rocks whirling through the void, but at least when there were only millions on the planet, grouped into smaller chunks that really didn't have much contact with/give a shit about the rest of the societies that made up the planet, people probably didn't individually feel quite so invisible and unwanted and pointless.

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    1. I actually think it's quite the opposite. The reason is enhanced communication, and the digitally enhanced illusion of self-importance.

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    2. I don't call posting into the inchoate void of the Internet enhanced communication.

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    3. Once again, there are just too many people talking. If everyone who reads this blog died tomorrow, .00000000000000000000000000000001% of the human beings currently alive would give a shit. (Approximately.)

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    4. But it doesn't feel that way as we send our deep wisdoms into the digital abyss. People love hearing their own voice.

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    5. Alternatively, no one would give a shit if humanity just dies

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    6. As Roy Baumeister explains (in Meanings of Life, c. 1991), the sources of meaning previously available to humans have been eroded, and the self has had to take on more and more meaning-providing weight for modern humans. Why self-importance? Where does that come from? That's the interesting question.

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    7. It's not all that's left. There are experiences like sex and flow that can dissolve perception of the self and that are clearly worth having.

      I think self-importance flows logically from free-market capitalism (as opposed to collectivism) and digital networking (as opposed to one-way mass media reception). The reason is that the self and its social constructions are the constituent units of these patterns. Markets boils down to decisions of market participants, who are ultimately consent-giving or denying individuals. Digital networks connect selves as nodes, with disposable identities sometimes, in a dynamic swarm-like fashion even, but always from an individualistic first-person perspective - no matter how interconnected, it is always "me" who clicks the "Publish" button. Even democracy, as totalitarian as it can be for minorities, counts the votes of individuals, not collectives.

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    8. You might appreciate Baumeister's theory of masochism: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3812869

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  10. Yes there is an answer. It's called Venus Project/Zeitgeist Movement

    You can check it out @:
    www.thezeitgeistmovement.com
    www.thevenusproject.com

    Human condition is that of suffering and misery and I totally agree with what I read on your blog regarding suicide/anti-natalism and I adore people like Schopenhauer, Benatar and Cioran

    The solution lies in science and technology. In abolishing capitalism and all other coercive forms of control including money itself, in redesigning all of our values and in changing society using technology.

    You could say the best solution is Venus Project+its eventual full realization in something like the Singularity/transhumanistic society

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    1. Let's try communism again! Surely, *this* time it will work! With robots! And better moral arguments!

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    2. If you bothered to read any of the materials without bias and prejudice you would see that it is nowhere near communism. None of the elements that communism had (except the idealistic ones it always aspired to but never "knew" how to deliver) are present in the system proposed

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    3. If Islamic sharia law said that every city was supposed to be built like the Venus Project says, then it might have a chance of working - or at least of becoming the norm, for a larger section of the globe than 21 acres in Florida - because it would have the conservatism of a civilizational tradition behind it. But right now it's just another brittle utopian rationalist construct, that isn't even getting enough traction anywhere for anyone to start building a second model city. It's civilizational vaporware.

      And how is the Venus Project's "resource-based economics" *not* communism? The whole idea seems to be that, instead of anyone owning anything, there's a central inventory of all available resources, which people get to draw upon. Who are the gatekeepers? What happens when the city council or the inventory AI says that you're *not* allowed to draw on the collective resources in order to build your personal castles in the sky?

      If Frescograds and Frescovilles suddenly started springing up around the world, don't you think they would contain a similar spectrum of phenomena, to what we already see? One of them might be a little police state run by the local oligarch, another might be a slum with gang warfare (but it's a slum where the favelas were made with 3d printers). And yeah, still another might be a civilized place to live.

      Elements of the Venus Project vision may come true in some places, but it is not The Solution to human misery.

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    4. This is probably the worst part: That you have One Project with specific details instead of treating solutions as an open idea space whose components can be critically examined independently, recombined, refined or independently discarded.

      There's a specific visions with futury-looking buildings, moral "progress" predictions that do not follow from human nature or inevitably from cultural progression, ignorance of basic economic facts, ignorance of how hard it is to get an AI to build a world that humans would value, and finally a lot of waste - have you seen how much space and materials these envisioned cities waste? If I want to live on a tighter, more frugal budget and use the resources more efficiently to support more people like me with less consumption but higher pleasure center stimulation, who has the right to tell us we have to live in a Venus-Project city? Who bans the market that would allow us to buy these resources and implement these alternatives, and by what right?

      There's this impulse to have a specific vision of paradise that can brush over all human differences and practical problems, and it has *always* been shortsighted. I see the exact same pattern in the Venus Project and it's ardent defenders.

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    5. Very interesting sites. That's the first I've heard of the Venus Project/Zeitgeist Movement. I think it’s a good model for a paradigm shift and I admire Jacque Fresco for thinking in such an original and creative way. It’s refreshing to see at least one person facing the global economic meltdown squarely, admitting the current systems are hopeless and striking out in a whole new direction.

      I don’t think the human race can evolve fast enough to embrace something like the Venus Project, though. It would require transcendence of our animal nature, which I don’t think is in the cards for most people who are alive today. I think you would need a whole new species of human to make it work, which could only be accomplished in a short time through designer breeding and human cloning.

      Otherwise, I predict it will be business as usual until the Earth fries. But don’t worry, the apes with the most money are going to fry right along with the rest of us.

      I like the concepts shown in the video for the Venus Project, but unless human beings can evolve really quickly, it's probably going to be business as usual until the Earth fries.

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    6. Oops! I meant to delete that last paragraph. Unfortunately, I don't think you can delete a post on this blog once you publish it, especially if you post it as Anonymous.

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    7. Yes, Anonymous, you can't -- though maybe Sister Y can delete it for you.

      We human beings must have [almost?] stopped evolving, because we let even the most "unfit" to breed.

      Besides, nature and evolution love only "animal nature", not our transcendence of it. That's why we're all constantly at loggerheads with it.

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    8. "We human beings must have [almost?] stopped evolving, because we let even the most 'unfit' to breed."

      No, actually. This ignores the huge amount of natural selection that occurs in the womb.

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  11. I think some of the corporate memes need to go, like the one that says we all have to get in our cars and drive to work every day, wasting a huge amount of time, money and energy in the process, and ruining everyone's day with traffic jams and pollution.

    How much environmental warming and drought will it take before people are willing to discard this meme? In Indiana, all 92 counties have been declared agricultural disaster areas due to drought.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505245_162-57494682/all-92-ind-counties-now-farming-disaster-areas/

    People can deny global warming all they want, but in Indiana it is very clear the weather is changing. Flower bulbs no longer go dormant because winter temperatures aren't cold enough. Daffodils that used to bloom in the spring now start popping out of the ground in mid-winter. Summer temperatures are hitting triple digits more often, causing people's air conditioners to run almost continuously during the day.

    But still, the corporate meme that says we all have to drive a car to work every day is not budging. Many, many jobs could be done remotely from a home office, but inertia keeps the current hamster wheel going around and around with no end in sight. We have the technology to change our way of life dramatically for the better, but for some unknown reason, people are afraid to change.

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    1. To me the best reason commuting needs to go is the direct, measurable suffering it causes people, a la the commuter paradox - the longer your drive, the less happy you are, and it's not made up for by increased earnings.

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    2. Sitting alone at home all week is not everybody's cup of tea though.

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  12. Cultural packages that were stable for centuries appear to have done a decent job of providing humans with a sense of meaning and a decent level of wellbeing.

    A year and a half later, you seem to think that it's the inverse way around, right? I certainly do Culture does not so much adapt us for "happiness" (surely there'd be more of it!); a separate memetic process probably makes us redefine "happiness" to fit the culture.

    And that's why the cultural conservatism vs. cultural progressivism debate is rather nonsensical: conservatism inevitably has wiser-sounding arguments yet inevitably explains way too much - like what a miserable, individuality-crushing, family-values-lacking, High Modernist hellhole the USSR must've been - even though it absolutely wasn't.

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  13. "More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago."

    The population of the entire planet two hundred years ago was 1 Billion. Today the population is 7 Billion people. Most of that growth has occurred in the last fifty years. Wherever all these people are coming 'from', the desire to experience humanness on this planet, obviously must be very attractive.

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